Wednesday, June 26, 2013
UCLA fitting national champ in era of low offense
OMAHA, Neb. -- Not only is UCLA the national champion, the Bruins also serve as a model for how to build a winner in this new era of college baseball.
The Bruins ended the year with nary a .300 hitter, but, boy, could they pitch and play defense.
"We play a lot of tight games," star closer David Berg said. "We aren't explosive offensively, but we win a lot of games because we do execute."
They did all season, but never more than at the College World Series, where their grinding offense and lockdown pitching and defense both frustrated and fascinated opponents.
Some coaches have lamented the drop-off in offense since new bat standards went into effect in 2011. There also has been grumbling about how unfriendly the cavernous TD Ameritrade Park is to home-run hitters.
Bruins coach John Savage said before the finals that those coaches need to stop complaining and start adjusting.
They might want to follow Savage's lead.
A pitching coach before he was a head coach, Savage always has adhered to the pitching-and-defense mantra. As for offense, his philosophy asks his team to capitalize on every opportunity and scratch out runs any which way it can.
It was a style well-suited to 2013, when college baseball's offensive numbers were at or near the level of the wooden bat days pre-1974.
This College World Series was Exhibit A for the game's new age. The combined batting average for the 14 games was .237. There were three home runs.
The Bruins (49-17) batted .227 and had no homers. That was the lowest batting average by a national champion in the metal-bat era, and they were the first team since 1966 to win a title with no home runs.
UCLA scored 11 runs in its first four CWS games. The 8-0 title-clinching victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday pushed the Bruins' CWS total to 19 -- an average of 3.8 that is the lowest by a champion in the metal-bat era.
On the mound and in the field is where the Bruins won their school's first national championship in baseball and NCAA-record 109th in a team sport.
Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson combined for five straight outstanding starts and James Kaprielian and Zack Weiss bridged the way to Berg, the Pac-12 pitcher of the year and National Stopper of the Year.
UCLA's 0.80 ERA was the lowest since the metal bat was put into play in 1974, and the four runs allowed in five games were the fewest since California won the 1957 title after allowing three runs in five games.
The defense, which ranked fifth nationally with a .980 fielding percentage, committed three errors that didn't result in any runs. Second baseman Cody Regis and shortstop Pat Valaika made a number of stellar stops and turned three double plays, and right fielder Eric Filia made one of the great catches of the CWS when he ran down Nick Ammirati's fly to the warning track on Monday.
"Our defense has been great all year and our pitching staff has a lot of heart," Vander Tuig said. "We have each other's back."
The Bruins batted .250 for the season, worst in the Pac-12 and near the bottom in Division I, but they usually were able to generate enough runs.
In the CWS finals alone, the Bruins had two runners score after they had been hit by a pitch, another after he reached base on a wild-pitch third strike and another after he reached on a throwing error.
The "get-'em-on, move-'em-around" strategy was fueled by a CWS record-tying 12 sacrifices in five games.
"We call ours a good practice team," Savage said. "For us to play well in games, you have to do it in practice and you have to do it in front of the coaches. We work hard -- conditioning, weights, practice -- and we got better in this tournament."
The Bruins won 11 straight to finish the season, including all 10 of their games in the NCAA tournament.
They had one of the most challenging routes to get to Omaha, sweeping San Diego State, Cal Poly and San Diego in regionals before going to Cal State Fullerton and sweeping two games from the No. 5 national seed Titans in super regionals.
"I think that's why you call us champions," Savage said.
He said he knew when his team beat Fullerton that it would be one to be reckoned with in Omaha.
"To make the run we did, I think it's one of the best runs clearly in the history of UCLA baseball and, really, for a single season on the West Coast."